Friday, November 18, 2005

GUEST POST -- All the Obits Fit to Print

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:03 PM |  

by Mark Yost

There are times when I think our culture and country are truly staring into the abyss, and there are others when we’ve clearly already descended into that dark place and are looking up. The latest example of the latter came in the Obituaries column in the Sunday, Nov. 13 New York Times.

The Old Gray Lady had room for just two obits this week. The first obituary, written by Times staffer Margalit Fox, ran nearly the entire length of the two-column space under a headline that read, “Ruth Clement Bond, 101, Quilter and Civic Leader, Is Dead.” Here are some of the key passages from the obituary that the Times deemed worthy of 19 paragraphs.

“Ruth Clement Bond, an educator and civic leader who in the mid-1930’s, in her first and only foray into quilt design, helped transform the American quilt from a utilitarian bedcovering into a work of avant-garde social commentary, died on Oct. 24 at her daughter’s home in Manhattan. She was 101.”
The Times went on to tell readers how Mrs. Bond was know for a series of T.V.A quilts, designed by her and “sewn in rural Alabama by the wives of African-American workers building dams there for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Visually arresting and contemporary-looking even today, the T.V.A. quilts are considered pivotal in the history of American quiltmaking.”

The quilts were, according to the Times, “dynamic works of modern art” that “depict bold, stylized silhouettes of black people. With their jagged yet elegant lines, the figures have been compared to the paper cutouts of Matisse and to the work of the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas.”

The quilts have been shown across the country and are featured in several books, including “Soft Covers for Hard Times: Quiltmaking and the Great Depression.”

We also learn that Mrs. Bond, whose husband belonged to the Foreign Service, “taught at universities in Haiti, Liberia and Malawi and worked with women’s and youth groups in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Sierra Leone. After returning to Washington in the 1960’s, she served as president of the African-American Women’s Association.” In the late-1970s, she also was a part of a “fact-finding mission for the National Council of Negro Women that studied the role of women in Senegal, Togo and the Ivory Coast.”

The Times goes on to explain of the landmark quilting project: “Many of the workers were former sharecroppers, and the dam project gave them their first real income. Almost overnight, their wives were buying pianos for their parlors. But to Mrs. Bond’s consternation, they were wallpapering those parlors with the pages of the Sears catalog.”

“These country women were buying things they didn’t need, yet weren’t fixing up their houses,” Mrs. Bond was quoted as saying in a 1992 oral history for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

“One quilt depicts a man torn between an alluring woman, tantalizingly glimpsed at one edge of the image, and a solid government job, represented by an extended uniformed arm, at the other,” the Times said. “Another shows a black fist seeming to rise straight from the earth. The fist clutches a jagged red lightning bolt, symbolizing the T.V.A.’s promise of rural electrification. The women called the quilt ‘Black Power.’”

Buried under Mrs. Bond’s obituary, in smaller type, were just six paragraphs devoted to Robert Bush. Since it’s so short, here’s the whole obituary, which ran under the headline, Robert Bush, 79, Who Received Medal of Honor, Is Dead.”

TACOMA, Wash., Nov. 12 (AP) - Robert E. Bush, who received a Medal of Honor for actions in tending to the wounded while under enemy fire on Okinawa, died Tuesday in Tumwater, Wash., outside Olympia, his family said. He was 79.

Mr. Bush was an 18-year-old Navy corpsman serving in World War II when, on May 2, 1945, he was treating wounded marines on Okinawa, the scene of the Pacific Theater’s longest and bloodiest battle. According to the citation for his medal, he braved enemy fire to tend to the wounded and was administering plasma to one wounded officer when the Japanese launched an attack. He kept the plasma bottle in one hand as he fired at the enemy, first with his pistol and then, when his own ammunition ran out, with a discarded carbine.

Though seriously wounded, the citation said, Mr. Bush “calmly disregarded his own critical condition to complete his mission, valiantly refusing medical treatment for himself until his officer patient had been evacuated and collapsing only after attempting to walk to the battle aid station.”

Mr. Bush lost an eye and was shipped to Hawaii for treatment, then sent home.

Mr. Bush was born in Tacoma on Oct. 4, 1926, and dropped out of high school at age 17 to enlist. After returning from the war, he graduated from high school and married Wanda Spooner. That fall the couple traveled to Washington, where he received his medal from President Harry S. Truman on Oct. 5, 1945.”
The last paragraph of the obituary, before listing his survivors, notes, “Mr. Bush had a career building a lumber company into a multimillion-dollar business.”


Of course, the fact that the Times felt the death of Mrs. Bond was far more important than that of Mr. Bush, should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, this is the “paper of record” that has been the megaphone for the anti-war movement in this country and abroad. It’s also the paper that has written nary a word about all the reconstruction projects going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, but plays up every death on the front page. And we don’t even need to discuss the despicable things that have been written on the editorial pages of the Times about George Bush, Dick Cheney, and the war effort.

While coverage of the war on terror has been no better in The Washington Post, it at least had the decency to accord proper space to mark the death of an American hero from a war that not even the vehemently anti-war media would argue was unjust. The Post devoted 15 paragraphs to Mr. Bush’s life, written by staff reporter Adam Bernstein.

In the Post obituary we learn that Mr. Bush was the youngest sailor to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II.

“On May 2, 1945, Mr. Bush was serving with a rifle company in the 1st Marine Division and met resistance from Japanese forces on Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands,” read the Post obituary. “He darted among the artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire to care for casualties. While feeding plasma into a fallen Marine lieutenant with a dire chest and shoulder injury, he refused to leave his exposed position on a ridge in the midst of a Japanese counterattack.

“Mr. Bush held the plasma bottle aloft with one hand while he took the officer’s carbine with his free hand, then fired at the charging Japanese. He reloaded his gun and maintained point-blank fire on the foe, killing six at the cost of his right eye as hand grenades exploded around him.

“‘They got me,’ he told a reporter in Aberdeen, Wash. ‘The first grenade took my eye out, and I put my arm up to hold it off, and got some fragments in the other eye. Got a lot in my eye and shoulders. They hit me with three hand grenades in a matter of seconds. I was firing on them with [the lieutenant’s] carbine. Every time I saw a Japanese head pop up, I could see the star on their helmets, I'd fire one round a foot below where I saw that head come up, because I knew I couldn’t miss, I’d get ‘em on the way down.’”
The Post noted that Mr. Bush was “one of 482 Navy corpsmen at Okinawa and one of six who received the Medal of Honor.”

The Post also reports that in 1951 Mr. Bush bought a lumberyard in South Bend, Wash., for several hundred dollars and turned it into a multimillion-dollar business. And despite the fact that he had only one eye, he spent years earning his private pilot’s license. He used it to fly his friend, Jimmy Doolittle, the leader of the famous 1942 raid over Tokyo, to a remote retreat to fish for salmon.

“This medal wasn’t given to me because I’m the greatest guy who came down the pike,” Mr. Bush was quoted as saying. “We had thousands who lost their lives who were certainly equally identifiable as being able, in their mind or the minds of their compadres, to receive the Medal of Honor. But perhaps it wasn’t properly documented. So, I look at it as though I’m a custodian for those who died.”

Would that The New York Times – and the other media outlets that largely ignored Mr. Bush’s death – felt the same way.

Yost is associate editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion Page.

Category: Guest Post, Journalism